From Working in Tech to Homelessness: The Challenges Facing a Senior Veteran

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Eddie Thomas is a veteran who gradually wound up at a Berkeley shelter after losing his job at a local tech company at the age of 55. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

The East Bay's only emergency winter shelter for homeless seniors opens Monday — two weeks earlier than usual due to urgent need. 

Director of St. Mary's Center in West Oakland, Sharon Cornu, said that with more homeless seniors each year, it's important to get a head start this winter. She said most seniors she serves fell into homelessness after working much of their lives.

A University of Pennsylvania study estimates the aging homeless population will triple by 2030. In 1990, only 11% of the nation’s homeless population was over the age of 50, today more than 50% are.

A UC San Francisco study shows homeless people in their 50s face more geriatric conditions than those living in homes who are decades older. According to the study, nearly half of the growing population of unhoused seniors became homeless after they turned 50-years-old.

Eddie Thomas, a former marine who lives in the East Bay, remembers the moment life as he knew it took a precarious dive — it was back in 2013, when he was 55, that he lost his job as a component repair technician at Intel.

Thomas is now 61.

'Let Me Get a Job'

"They really gave us no prior warning. They met us at the gate after we went through a fingerprint and retinal scan," he said of his experience being laid off in 2013. "Armed security guards escorted us to human resources to get our severance package, back pay, vacation pay, sick pay... So I started living off my savings," he said.

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He was able to keep his apartment at first, then he lived at the home of someone from his church, eventually a motel room — all while applying for job after job.

He has always been good with his hands, so side jobs replacing ceiling fans and cutting grass helped stretch out his unemployment and savings for quite a while, but eventually, three years went by. 

"I was a victim of age discrimination big time," Thomas said. "Maybe too some of that discrimination," he added, as he pointed to his skin.

With all of his money nearly gone, a Marine Corps career counselor referred Thomas to a long-term shelter in Berkeley. He packed his bags and stayed there for two years.

At the shelter, he was persistent, and luckier than most. Thomas conveys an uncommon persistence and adeptness at navigating through the systems around him.  And he had the support of a Veteran Affairs social worker who helped get him a few hundred dollars of general assistance each month. By December of last year, the social worker set him up with a coveted Section 8 housing voucher in mere days — a feat that can sometimes take years to accomplish.

Section 8 is a voucher program operated by the federal government. The recipient pays a percentage of their income and the government pays the rest. "But I'd been working all my life, and I was like, 'No, let me get a job,'" Thomas said. 

Eddie Thomas suffered an injury last year that left him financially broke, homeless and unable to work. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

High Hopes

Thomas's hopes were high the morning of Dec. 16, 2018 when he set out for an interview at Sun Microsystems.

"It was dark. Had to be there at 7 but it was 5:30. I was running across the street. I had my... laptop, tool bag, and backpack. And I fell — some kind of indentation or rise in the road or something, I don't remember," Thomas said.

When he woke up 8 days later, it was Christmas Eve and he was at Highland Hospital in Oakland. He couldn't use his right hand, he had a fractured skull, and his neck vertebrae had been fused. 

The injury left him financially broke, homeless and unable to work.

UCSF's Dr. Margot Kushel has done landmark research on Oakland's unhoused seniors. She said falls are a big part of the epidemic.

"Even though these individuals are in their 50s or 60s, a lot of their health is much more similar to their 70s and 80s. You know your 80-year-old grandma, if housed, might not be running to catch the bus all the time. You, in fact, might hold her arm as she as she's crossing the street. She might use a cane or a walker," said Kushel.

Since his fall, Thomas has been wheelchair-bound. He spent about ten months living in a skilled nursing facility. It was the nerve pain from his spinal surgery that bothered him the most, as well as other patients. He just wanted a place of his own.

"I didn't come in to make friends. I came in to get the hell out," Thomas said.

Still Waiting

He's had two promising leads since being granted the hard-to-get Section 8 housing subsidy voucher.

The last one was a three-interview and four-month application process, after which he says his Veteran's Affairs social worker relayed the landlord's decision. They weren't renting anymore, he said.

Section 8 guarantees landlords get paid at least $1700 for a one-bedroom apartment in Alameda County. While  discrimination against people with vouchers is illegal, a quick search on Craigslist provides a myriad of examples with listings explicitly stating "No Section 8."

The federal government has steadily rolled back housing funds for high cost-of-living areas  — despite skyrocketing rents and deepening poverty.

"It's just so competitive," said Veteran Affairs regional housing program supervisor Patrick Kowalski.

About a third of Alameda County veterans with Section 8 vouchers — which is more than 600 people — are currently waiting for a home, Kowalski said.

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"Vacancy rate in Alameda County is below 5%. When you throw in some specialty such as senior status or a need to be near public transportation or even a VA facility, you shrink the available number of units even more," he said.

Kowalski hopes to encourage more property owners to open their units to veterans with Section 8 vouchers who continue to get VA support to ensure their placements are successful.

As for Eddie Thomas, he moved to Veteran Affairs transitional housing in Alameda last month. He says he's been promised a one bedroom in the VA's new veteran-only residential building by the end of the year. But for now, he's still waiting.